Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review of TP's PAHIMAKAS SA ISANG AHENTE: Timeless Tragedy of Pride

September 27, 2014

I have long heard of "Death of a Salesman" but I have not read the play, seen a stage performance nor even a film version of this classic by Arthur Miller. When I got wind of the news that Tanghalang Pilipino was staging it this year, I knew had to see it, even it were in a Filipino version translated by Rolando Tinio entitled "Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente". When they released their cast list last month, this play simply became a must-see.

I liked the Filipino title. Instead of a literal translation like "Pagkamatay" for "Death", Tinio used the word "Pahimakas" which means "Final Farewell," which makes it a decidedly poetic. Then instead of the preposition "Ng" meaning "Of", Tinio chose to use "Sa" to mean "For". For me, it gives a sense that this play was written FOR the titular salesman, instead of being only ABOUT him. Changing that one small word gives the Filipino title a more romantic dimension.

The play is about Willy Loman, a travelling salesman and also family man happily married to Linda, with two grown sons, Biff and Happy. As he gets older though, his boss takes him out of the company payroll and makes his earnings per commission-basis. With this demotion at work, his own sanity begins to unravel. Willy's stubborn pride makes him resist help from his family and friends. Ghosts from his past, like his elder brother Ben and the mysterious woman from Boston, insidiously creep into Willy's present dementia, throwing his family into a major turmoil.

Nanding Josef, who is concurrently the Artistic Director of Tanghalang Pilipino, played Willy Loman. Being the central character, everything about this play hangs on his performance and Mr. Josef nails it. He has the physical look of Willy down pat, with the sad face and the drooped shoulders, further emphasized by loose-fitting clothes and suspenders which can't stay up, all fully embodying this troubled and down-and-out character, tortured by his own forced retirement, the nightmare of a materialistic society. Josef shines in those big confrontation scenes he had where he was most real, like he was not only acting at all.

Gina Pareno played Willy's supportive wife Linda. At the start of the play, Ms. Pareno was rather tentative in her performance. There were several scenes when I could not make out anything she was saying because she was not projecting her voice loud enough. However, by the end of the first act, Linda had her biggest moment when she reveals to her two sons that she thought their father was trying to kill himself. Fortunately at this point, Pareno fully realized her character in a most riveting manner. Linda's real self finally bloomed for all of us to see and we will then understand her role in this family's fractured dynamics.

Yul Servo played Biff Loman, Willy's slacker 34 -year old eldest son who never realized his potential, a failed jock. I only knew Servo from some of his films that I have seen, and his screen performances tended to be uneven. For this play though, he had the perfect look for the character It was in the second act where his character finally explodes. Servo's climactic confrontation scene with his father is worth the price of admission in itself. That scene is sure to nab him Best Supporting Actor nominations and wins come awards season.

Ricardo Magno played the youngest son, Happy Loman. This young actor had his work cut out for him with all the award-winning senior stars he had to work with, and he more than passes muster. Dido de la Paz played the Loman's next-door neighbor and Willy's only friend Charley. This guy is really has a natural comic flair, consistent from the other plays I have seen him in. The imposing heft and grand mustache of Ding Navasero contrasts so strikingly with Willy's stooped posture, making him a good choice to play the ghost of Willy's successful brother Ben.

This performance I caught featured the Senior cast. Some other performances will feature a Junior cast (Jonathan TadioanRacquel Pareno and Marco Viana) in the main roles.

"Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente" is no doubt a formidable play. It runs for about three and a half hours long. The main characters all have lengthy soliloquys, made more difficult by being in delivered Filipino. Some lines can be awkward to say in Filipino because they possessed a distinct American flavor in the words. The innate complexity of this play automatically makes the actors who take on this big challenge a notch above other actors. 

For audiences, this is the type of play that will make you think about your own family relationships. You will be able to see yourself as a parent, or as the children, or both. The characters of this play, despite being set in the 1940s, remain to be very real to this day. This play is a timeless mirror for the audience to reflect on, hence its successful longevity.

Kudos to director Chris Millado and the cast and crew of Tanghalang Pilipino for once again bringing an essential theater masterpiece back to life again. Special mention goes to Leo Abaya for the two-tiered set with details (like the refrigerator, the telephone, the lamp) that evoked the nostalgia of 1940s suburban America.

"Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente" will be running at the CCP Studio Theater (Tanghalang Huseng Batute) from Sept. 26 to October 19, 2014. Shows are at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. You can get your tickets for only P 800 each at the CCP Box Office (832-3704) or on TicketWorld (891-9999). For further inquiries, please call Tanghalang Pilipino at 832-1125, local 1620-21.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review of NOLI ME TANGERE: THE OPERA (RWM): Soaring Nartional Masterpiece

September 28, 2014

Honestly, at first I was not planning to watch "Noli Me Tangere, The Opera," which was being re-staged in the Newport Performing Arts Theater in far-off (for me) Resorts World Manila.  Furthermore, I already watched this same opera when it was performed by Dulaang UP (MY REVIEWin Diliman fairly recently, in November 2011. However, because of a generous invitation and my curiosity on how this opera will be staged in a much bigger venue got the better of me.

The Noli Me Tangere of course is a masterpiece of Philippine literature, an immortal novel by Philippine National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal. This opera also carries a prestigious pedigree, being composed by Felipe de Leon and written by Guillermo Tolentino, National Artists both. This particular production of Noli the Opera is under the direction of Freddie Santos. It is being performed by a cast of more than 30 Filipino opera singers from both New York and Manila. The accompanying music is played by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Rodel Colmenar. The stage & costume design was by Jerry Sibal.

It just so happened that the main cast I caught this afternoon playing the four main characters are the very same people which I caught three years ago in UP. 

Crisostomo Ibarra was played by Ivan Niccolo Nery. Maria Clara was played by Myramae Meneses. I will call this the junior cast, as they alternate with more senior and bigger name opera artists Sal Malaki and Rachel Gerodias in these roles. But I imagine that Nery and Meneses would match the ages of the characters more accurately. 

Nery's voice quality was over and above all the male singers in the show.  His tenor was flawless even as he was hitting punishingly high notes, much fuller and more mature than I saw him in UP. He may not really look like the Ibarra we imagine from the novel, but in this opera, he definitely nails the role. Meneses was radiant as Maria Clara with her smiling eyes and sparkling soprano voice. She too has improved in her acting and vocal technique since I last saw her.

Sisa was played by Jean Judith Javier. Her highlight is Sisa's poignant soliloquy of madness and Javier does all of the required difficult trilling perfectly. She received the loudest ovation during the curtain call. 

Padre Damaso was played by Jonathan Velasco.  This character is so hateful in the whole show, especially in that scene where Damaso was laughing at Ibarra's plan for a school. The way Velasco performed there, you'd want to jump the stage as take a dagger to his neck yourself.

I have to say their voices were sounded much better here, more rounded and solid, no doubt thanks to the ultra-modern sound system of the Newport Theater. I do not see any microphones on them at all. That said, there are also sound hitches noted, like failed mics for some minor characters.  I did not expect since this was already the second to the last day of performance that I watched. 

When you compare this big-budget Resorts World production with the more austere UP production, there were pros and cons. The RW stage is huge, so it is more difficult to fill it up. They rely on the video screen backdrop to create a more three-dimensional illusion of depth. Those scenes inside Kapitan Tiago's house are specially beautiful. But there were times when the huge stage looked too empty. Those intimate scenes of Crisostomo and Maria Clara, as well as the scene of Sisa's headlong descent into madness, worked much better on the smaller stage of UP. 

One thing that helped in the appreciation of the show are the meticulous simultaneous English translation of the libretto overhead in the main stage, and on the big screens on both sides. Even if you can understand most of the Tagalog words, you can still miss some details when these words are sung in opera style, so the subtitles were much appreciated.

It was admirable that a generous sponsor had made it possible for public high school kids to have a rare chance of watching a world-class show. They filled up the whole balcony and side orchestra sections it seems. However, maybe they should have been better briefed on proper theater etiquette. During the first act everything was OK. In the second half after the intermission, probably they were restless already, their chatting became disturbingly audible. They would also applaud in the wrong moments, sometimes even before the songs were finished. They were actually laughing during the Sisa scene. Anyway, I am happy that these children were able to see an opera, and hope it would inspire some of them to go into the performing arts themselves.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of JOHN LEGEND "All of Me Tour" in Manila 2014: Intensely Passionate Soul

September 26, 2014

This is already the second time that John Legend has been to Manila for a concert. I had been a fan since hearing his impassioned voice interpreting the extraordinary song "Ordinary People." I do not know why, but it had been a last minute decision to watch this concert. But coming out of it after the show, I don't know why I had doubt about watching this at all. This was the best concert I have been to for a very long time. 

The concert started almost an hour later than the time indicated on the ticket which was 8 pm. By 8 pm, the Patron area downstairs, as well as the Lower Box were still quite empty. However, by 9 pm, when the lights finally dimmed down, all the seats were already fully packed and the audience was all ready to hear the main act. Like a few other recent concerts I attended, there had been no front act anymore. I don't know if that is still done nowadays or that is already a passe concert practice. 

The spotlight was first trained on stage right, where a string quartet began to play. Then suddenly, spotlight moved to centerstage. A dapper John Legend stepped out dressed nattily in a white suit. After his bows, he sat at his grand piano and began to sing his first song, "Made to Love." With that first song alone, we already knew how great and unique his vocals were as well as his mad piano playing skills. It was a beautiful opening number, which was followed by a new hit "Tonight (Best You Ever Had)". The audience was already singing along at this point.

Before his next song, Legend recounted how he had a lucky break playing piano on one of the songs in classic album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" in 1997. After that though, he claimed to have been rejected by all the record companies, until Kanye West took a chance on him. He had been given backing piano or vocals for bigger acts like Jay-Z or Alicia Keys. Kanye gave John one featured song to sing on the former's concerts. That was "Used to Love U" (VIDEO), which became his first single in 2004. This was also the next song he sang, with the audience made to sing the catchy "holla holla holla" chorus, which was fun.

He sang and played some more songs which were not too familiar with me, but were so awesome to hear for the first time, like "Save the Night" and "Maxine." He gave us a glimpse about his songwriting process via one of the songs from his second album "Again." But a lot of times, he pleasantly surprised me with songs that I already forgot were in his discography, like "PDA" and "Save Room" (VIDEO). These are both wonderful catchy tunes.

He made everyone get up to dance when he sang "Green Light" (VIDEO) one of the rare times he left his piano. He knows his limits as dancer so he does not make any wild moves, just kept everything pretty cool. He followed this up by a great cover version of Michael Jackson's "Rock With You." It felt great to get up and groove to these upbeat songs.

He returned to his piano to sing "Who Do We Think We Are". Then he began to talk about his origins in Ohio, his Pentocostal church upbringing and his musical family. He especially dedicated the next song to his grandmother who taught him to play gospel piano. The song turned out to be his cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and his intense soulful delivery definitely raised not a few goosebumps.

He sang his latest single next "You & I (Nobody in the World)" followed by "Caught Up", as he talked about how he is setting up the perfect date for every couple in there that night with his songs, and we know he is right. The next song was a big one, "Ordinary People" and the audience greeted the first note with pandemonium. This song is simply excellent is all aspects, and hearing it sung live by John Legend, with the audience beautifully singing backup this night was already worth the ticket price. He sang one more anthemic song entitled "So High" before finally bidding the audience goodbye.

Of course, we all know the night is not yet over. How could it be when he had not yet sung the title song of his concert tour, which just so happened to be his first and only Number One song to date. He only played one encore song, and this was the song we were all waiting for: "All Of Me." Words could not describe the depth of emotion we hear in his voice as he was singing this song. Again the audience participation was amazingly perfectly in tune, even making the song sound more beautiful than it did on the CD version.

This concert was all about the incredible singing voice and piano playing of John Legend -- no costume changes, no gimmicks, no elaborate dance numbers. He was breathtaking to hear perform live. He gave his songs an additional edginess we do not hear in the recordings. Now this is what a concert performance should be. I am so glad we were there to imbibe John Legend's passionate soul. This is one of the best pop concerts I ever attended in terms of vocal virtuosity, right up there with Stevie Wonder, Sting and Andrea Bocelli.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Recap of MUSIKAL! Day 2: Celebrating Original Filipino Musical Theater

September 7, 2014

Because of some domestic circumstances, I thought I would not be able to watch either of the two nights of this special show set on Sept. 5 and 6, 2014.  However, at the last minute on the second day, tempted by the photos and rave reviews I saw on the social media, I found a way to go to the CCP to catch this first-ever revue of original Filipino musical theater shows. No way I will miss this.

Surveying the twenty or so titles on the poster, I have actually watched and written about 15 of them. The other shows on the line up like "Magsimula Ka" or "Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Muzikal" I have heard about, but never got the chance to watch yet. Of course, there are also other Filipino musicals (mostly by PETA) I have seen but are not included, "William", "D'Wonder Twins of Boac"  or personal favorite "Juan Tamad" come to mind. "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" by Dulaang UP was also not on the list. Saving them for a future revue? Maybe.

After the National Anthem, the show opened with a speech by Dr. Raul Sunico, the current president of the CCP, which is celebrating its 45th year of existence this year.  He introduced a surprise second speaker (whom I did not read about for the first night), none other than Ms. Lea Salonga! Frank as she was, Ms. Salonga immediately squashed with a smile from the get-go all expectations that she would sing. She talked about how she started her theater career with a performance on that very CCP stage as a 7-year old girl in a production of "The King and I".

The show began with Sheila Francisco introducing, then performing, a funny excerpt from the zarzuela "Walang Sugat" with Red Nuestro entitled "Makikiliti Kang Totoo." This was quite the strong opening number especially with the clear booming voice of Nuestro. This is the first time I've heard Francisco sing operatically, though too bad her lapel mic did not seem to be working well. 

This microphone problem would haunt many other singers throughout the show, like Ebe Dancel during the "Rock Supremo" number "Lakambini" and Athena Tibi during the "Rivalry" number "Boy from La Salle". The orchestra and the louder mics of the backup singers would sometimes drown the lead vocals.

The best numbers of the revue for me are those for the Ryan Cayabyab musicals.  A medley of songs from the rock musical "Lorenzo" was performed by the excellent Ryan Cayabyab Singers. Their voices effortlessly soared up to reach those punishing notes they were made to reach.  A suite of songs from "Noli Me Tangere, the Musical" was performed by the ever-perfect Philippine Madrigal Singers, who were a league of their own in terms of musical elegance.  The penultimate number before the grand finale was "Rama Hari" with OJ Mariano and Karylle with Robert Sena, with dancers from Ballet Philippines so gracefully athletic in interpreting the songs.

The most popular numbers among the audiences based on the loudness of spontaneous applause were those numbers by the PETA.  There was a loud ovation already heard even before the "Rak of Aegis" number began, with only the title flashed on the screens onstage. The catchy song form "Batang Rizal" entitled "Pag-asa ng Bayan" was very well-received. The medley from "Himala" was so hauntingly beautiful, with stellar solo performances by May Bayot, Dulce, Isay Alvarez and Cynthia Culig-Guico. Of course, the "Caredivas" brought the house down with their glittery white drag queen ensembles and high heels while singing "Saan Ka Man Dalhin."

Even independently produced shows staged in the PETA Theater also stood out. These were the numbers from "Maxie the Musical" (with Jayvhot Galang and Jojo Riguerra) and that of "Sana Dati" (led by Victor Robinson, Caisa Borromeo and Kyla Rivera -- the three performers I did NOT see in the actual show as I saw their alternates).

Among the Tanghalang Pilipino productions, the best showcase was by "Sandosenang Sapatos" with a stellar solo by young Trixie Esteban singing "Sa Panaginip", with great support work by the rest of the company, including her imaginary friends precariously on roller skates while working the stage.

A chorus came out to sing "Ang Babaeng Malaya", a song from a movie musical I have not exactly heard of before entitled "Ang Kababaihan ng Malolos".  Though it was my first time to hear it, the song was beautiful, as the choral rendition was excellent. The other choral performance of an unknown song that I liked was "Alalahanin, Gunitain" from the musical "Sinta" which I also had no idea about. I am now very curious to watch these two shows.

The song chosen by the "Bluebird of Happiness" crew to perform was the group ballad number. "Christmas Morning". The song chosen to represent "Zsazsa Zaturnnah" was also a ballad "Multo ng Nakaraan" rendered led by Wenah Nagales as Zaturnnah.  I wished these two shows picked more upbeat songs from their respective shows.

The songs "Take Me to the Sky" (by Red Concepcion from "Toilet the Musical")  and "Luksang Pangitain" (by Margarita Roco from "San Andres B.") similarly felt buried under the other songs with production numbers, but the singing was undoubtedly solid.

Representing "Stageshow" is the rather uncomfortably raunchy song and dance number with the naughty title "Titina" featuring Roeder with four skimpily-clad girls. While it may have been funny within the context of its show, it seemed uncomfortably out of place for this grand occasion.

My bird's eye view of the stage during the finale

The most hardworking male singer may be Myke Salomon who appeared and sang solo parts three times. He was one of those who held a mic during the "Rak of Aegis" number as Kenny. Then he opened the second act with strong version of the popular title song from the 80s musical "Magsimula Ka." As the Palestinian guy Faraj, Salomon would also have a duet with Melvin Lee (as the coy Chelsea) in another "Caredivas" song "Mysterious".

The most hardworking female performer was Isay Alvarez-Sena. She sang solos in "Rak of Aegis" ("Munting Pangarap"), "Katy" ("Aba Ba Boogie"), and "Himala" (as Nimia). She introduced and led in the finale song number "Minsan ay Minahal Mo Ako" with Dulce and Aicelle Santos, who were then joined in by the whole ensemble on the stage behind them. This meaningful song from "Katy" provided the perfect ending to the whole night's celebration of local theater talent. 

After the list of composers and writers were acknowledged, Ms. Lea Salonga would join the company onstage to sing the CCP Hymn composed by Ryan Cayabyab, with lyrics by Hermie Beltran.

The vibrant orchestral accompaniment of the evening was care of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Gerard Salonga. The show was directed by Chris Millado. The Musical Director was Jed Balsamo. The stage design with those colorful LED light panels was designed by Ricardo Eric Cruz, with digital video designs by GA Fallarme.

This show proves what a very deep pool of musical stage talent we Filipinos have -- songwriters, musicians, librettists, actors and all the production crew behind them! Mabuhay ang teatrong Pilipino!


Here are the shows included in MUSIKAL! that I have seen and LINKS  to what I had written about them when I saw them:

PETA's Caredivas: MY REVIEW

TP's Noli Me Tangere, the Musical: MY REVIEW

TP's Walang Sugat: MY REVIEW

Ballet Phil's Rama Hari: MY REVIEW

Rivalry: MY REVIEW



TP's Sandosenang Sapatos: MY REVIEW


PETA's Batang Rizal: MY REVIEW

Lorenzo: MY REVIEW

Trumpets' Bluebird of Happiness: MY REVIEW

Maxie the Musical: MY REVIEW

TP's San Andres B: MY REVIEW

PETA's Rak of Aegis: MY REVIEW